OJAI, Ca — It looked, for one brief shining moment, as if Potsie had pulled it off.
On election night last November, Anson Williams was up by about 100 votes, what in these parts counts as a commanding lead. There were still plenty of results left to tally in the hotly contested campaign for mayor of Ojai, California — where all of 3,604 ballots were cast in 2022 — but the 73-year-old former TV star was far enough ahead of his opponent, 59-year-old incumbent mayor and yoga instructor Betsy Stix, that a few days later Stix released a statement congratulating Williams on his victory.
Happy Days, it seemed, were here again.
But then this is Ojai, where local politics are as volatile as the recent weather. And as Williams and his supporters were about to discover, there’s a lot more going on in this quirky little spa town than hot stone massages and hikes around the Topatopa Mountains.
Indeed, beneath its mellow surface, Ojai turns out to be a teeming cauldron of petty political intrigue, wacky electoral dysfunction, bitter ideological turf wars, shady self-dealing and shadowy consultants manipulating the levers of power at the highest levels of City Hall.
Think “Peyton Place,” as directed by Barry Levinson. Or maybe Mel Brooks.
“I went to where they were actually counting the votes and it was hysterical,” said Williams, chuckling as he recalled election day. “They have these machines that slice open the envelopes and drop the ballots into a plastic box. And while I’m watching, I’m seeing ballots popping out of the box onto the floor. I’m like, ‘There’s one popping out. There’s two popping out.’ Then some person comes in, scoops them up, and puts them all back into the box. I mean, we put people on the moon 50 some years ago, and we’ve got ballots popping all over the floor.”
For reasons that might appear self-evident from the above, it took county officials three weeks to finish tabulating the Ojai votes, during which Williams watched as his 100-vote lead slowly popped away to nothing. Once all the ballots were finally counted, officials noticed that there were more votes cast in the election than there were actual voters. It took another couple of weeks to figure out that they had double counted some ballots. They also discovered that at least one vote may have been cast by a resident of Germany, which would obviously be illegal.
Not surprisingly, there was a recount, pushed and paid for (at a cost of $28,000) by a Williams supporter named Tony Otto, a local artist who, in yet another soap opera twist, turned out to be Mayor Stix’s estranged ex-boyfriend. (“Best money I ever spent,” he told TheWrap).
“It was kind of nuts,” Williams said of the long, excruciating process. “And it was torture.”
And, ultimately, it didn’t end well for Williams. Just before Christmas, nearly two months after election day, the final results from the recount were announced. Williams lost the race to the yoga instructor. By 42 votes.
It is, of course, not uncommon for Hollywood personalities to run for office. Clint Eastwood became mayor of Carmel. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California. Both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump ascended to the White House (although only one of them ended up getting impeached, twice).
Anson Williams, however, was something of a reluctant candidate. Although he’s owned a house in Ojai for more than a decade, and lived there full-time for the last five years, since retiring from his post-“Happy Days” career as a TV director and entrepreneur, he’d never expressed much interest in local politics. Or any politics.
“Years ago, prominent people in Washington came up to me and asked if I wanted to run for Congress,” he said. “I asked, ‘Well, what party?’ And they were like, ‘Whatever,’ as if it didn’t matter. So, I was like, ‘Thank you very much, not interested.’”
More recently, though, Williams, a self-described moderate Democrat, began to grow frustrated with politics as usual in Ojai, a city he’d become more and more attached to, especially after his 2016 battle with colon cancer (he credits Ojai with helping him “heal” from that ordeal). He said he could “sense increasing division in the community, fights on Facebook about water and housing and the invasion of rich people from L.A,” much of which he believed was being stirred up by Stix and her “straw man arguments to keep out any sort of building or progress in our city.”
So, he did what any other concerned citizen might do — he tried pawn the job off on somebody else. “I thought, there’s got to be better people than me to run for mayor,” he said. “I actually went out and tried to get other people to run. But I couldn’t find anyone else who’d do it.”
In any other city, Williams would have one big advantage as a candidate — he’s famous. And not merely famous, but beloved for his role as Warren “Potsie” Weber, Richie Cunningham’s nerdy best bud on “Happy Days,” Garry Marshall’s seminal ’70s sitcom (which happened to be set in the ’50s). But, again, this is Ojai, where political norms are often turned on their head. Here, being a former TV star is all but disqualifying for office.
“If a celebrity comes to Ojai, everyone works really hard at pretending they don’t notice,” explained William Weirick, a Williams supporter who spent eight years on the city council. “People here frown on anybody who makes a scene over a famous person. It reminds me of my grandmother’s era, when old money looked down at Hollywood as being full of criminals trying to avoid copyrights back east. There’s still some of that attitude here in Ojai.”
Nonetheless, Ojai has become a magnet for a great number of Hollywoodians, most of them hiding out in the majestic hills that embrace the tiny valley town of 8,000. Some are celebrities, like actors Jon Bernthal and Malcolm McDowell who currently live here, and Anne Hathaway and Reese Witherspoon, who used to. But Ojai is also a haven for not-boldface-named Hollywood creatives, like directors Mimi Leder, Chloe Zhao, Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley and her boss, NBCU CEO Jeff Shell.
Williams tried to play down his Hollywood roots by running as a regular guy (who just happened to be endorsed by The Fonz) and limiting campaign appearances by his celebrity friends to just one Ron Howard event (a special screening of “Rebuilding Paradise”). But his opponent nevertheless tagged him as a development-crazed carpetbagger from down south, one of those rich Angelenos the locals love to loathe.
Stix, as it happens, isn’t a native to the region either. She grew up in the Midwest, graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, got her master’s in education from Stanford, and finally, 20 years ago, settled in Ojai, where she landed a job teaching yoga at Besant Hill, a small, utopian-inspired boarding school co-founded in the 1940s by Aldous Huxley. (“We love Betsy’s free expression of joy and willingness to be surprised,” is the endorsement on a yoga website with her videos.)
Like Williams, she too is a Democrat, but of a different stripe. Her top three priorities as outlined in her campaign materials — she didn’t respond to TheWrap’s requests for an interview — were fixing global warming, addressing California’s water shortage and increasing housing without increasing building by carving out new dwellings in existing structures.
In a way, she and her supporters could be considered conservative in the most literal sense of the word, in that they aspire to conserve what they cherish most about their city. Indeed, one of the city council candidates who was swept into office on Stix’s coattails in November, Andrew Whitman, went even further, running on a “vision” to return Ojai to “the town that I grew up in” in the 1970s.
“I think their stance is that there’s too much tourism in Ojai as it is,” said Ojai attorney and former city council member Ryan Blatz. “It’s almost like they’re saying Ojai is perfect the way it is. We shouldn’t change anything.”
Whatever you call them — ecological reactionaries, environmental extremists, aging hippies — their fierce opposition to any sort of development has a strong appeal in this part of California. When Stix ran for mayor the first time in 2020 — against Weirick — she won by a whopping 20 percentage points. This despite the fact that Stix spent that entire campaign awkwardly reading from pre-written notes, seemingly incapable of extemporaneous speech.
At one point during her debate with Weirick — held on Zoom during the pandemic — she appeared to misplace her scripted answer to a question on city finances. “One second,” she said, holding up the proceedings while searching on her computer for the pertinent text.
She ended up reading a statement about her position on defunding the police.
Stix clearly has some talent when it comes to one-on-one voter contact and she’s an indefatigable campaigner. But her dependance on scripted answers, even while leading city council meetings as mayor, has some in Ojai wondering exactly who is writing those scripts. The most likely suspect, according to numerous local sources, is her campaign manager, Tom Francis, a somewhat murky figure with a long history in Ojai politics. (An investigation into his past by a local political opponent shared with TheWrap reveals a series of misdemeanor violations, tax liens and business disputes. His latest scrape was right after election night, when he was arrested for a suspected DUI, according to a local arrest database).
In some Ojai circles, he’s snarkily referred to as “The Shadow Mayor.”
“There’s a strong feeling that Betsy is just echoing what he tells her to say,” said one longtime insider and close observer of the town’s politics. “Betsy doesn’t really participate in city council meetings; she’s not deliberating with her colleagues. She just reads prepared statements that he hands her.”
Whether or not Francis really is a Svengali-like figure in Ojai — he did not respond to an email or phone calls from TheWrap — his fingerprints can be found on many of the town’s most high-profile initiatives. For starters, he’s an organizer of a controversial Ojai non-profit called Mindful Citizen, the group that recently procured, with Mayor Stix’s endorsement, a nearly $500,000 fire-prevention grant from the state. The project manager of that grant? That’d be Tom Francis, who is said to be earning something in the $50,000 range for his services, despite his having zero fire-prevention experience.
Meanwhile, an offshoot of Mindful Citizen, an entity called Simply Ojai — Francis serves as its “representative” while Stix’s campaign treasurer, Leslie Hess, is its secretary — filed two lawsuits against the city about a month after the November election, both shepherded by a lawyer named Sabrina Venskus, who happens to be Francis’ ex-life partner.
The first suit seeks to overturn a previous city council decision (on which Stix was the only no vote) allowing for the renovation of “The Cottages,” a 67-unit housing project owned by Ventura-based developer Jeffrey Becker. Becker’s proposed renovations would include 27 units — about 40% — for low-and moderate-income dwellings.
The other suit, which lists Hess as its plaintiff, attempts to overturn another council decision (again, Stix was a No vote) permitting valet parking at the El Roblar, the oldest hotel in Ojai, which is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation by longtime area resident Eric Goode, an entrepreneur and conservationist (he builds tortoise preserves all over the globe, including in Ojai) as well as a Hollywood producer of such works as the pandemic-era hit “Tiger King.”
Exactly why Simply Ojai objects to valet parking is unclear — according to some studies, it’s better for the environment than self-parking — although the group may just see it as another opportunity to jab a stick into the wheels of development.
“Their argument against valet parking is that it ‘hurts the soul of Ojai,’” sneered the insider. “It’s preposterous. They’re just opposed to the hotel, to any building at all.”
During the election, neither the hotel nor the housing development were big issues. Instead, the campaign focused mostly on the candidates’ more general philosophical differences and voters’ personal comfort levels with each of them. Surprisingly, when it came to the latter, the yoga teacher had the advantage over the TV star.
“I’ve got to hand it to her,” said Weirick, “she’s dogged about going door to door. Anson didn’t do enough of that. But she and Tom Francis were knocking on doors, being nice, telling people that she’s just trying to do the right thing, all those nostrums. For a lot of voters, she was the only one they had personal contact with.”
“She can be charming,” admitted her ex-boyfriend Otto, who continues to believe there was something fishy about the vote count, including the recount he paid for. “But there’s no way Anson lost.”
Since the election, though, and especially in recent weeks, there’s been something of a sea change in Ojai. City council meetings, which used to be fairly sleepy affairs, have lately been much, much livelier, with Stix and her allies taking fierce incoming fire from citizens who are disturbed over her involvement in Simply Ojai’s lawsuits and her objections to the Cottages and hotel renovations.
“I cannot understand why anybody would be turning down this [housing] project,” one 100-year-old woman who braved torrential downpours to attend a crowded Jan. 10 meeting stood up to tell Stix and the council. “I beg you not to rescind this application.”
“I’m concerned about the appearance of impropriety by our mayor regarding Simply Ojai and Tom Francis and the lawsuits,” another citizen spoke out at that meeting. “I’m very concerned.”
There may well be reason for that concern. At another hearing, on Jan. 24, the council cut off a speech by member Leslie Rule, one of Stix’s opponents on the five-member body, when she tried to disclose some seriously compromising information from the council’s closed-door sessions. Like the fact that the outside attorney that Stix had picked to review the Cottages decision (you remember, the decision that she voted against and that Simply Ojai was suing to reverse) was recommended to her by Sabrina Venskus (you remember, Tom Francis’ ex partner and the freakin’ lawyer who filed Simply Ojai’s lawsuit against Ojai to reverse the Cottages decision).
“I kept thinking of that quote — ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,’” Rule told TheWrap a few days after she’d been shut down at the meeting. “They were using these little parliamentarian rules to try to silence me, but it wasn’t going to work. They weren’t going to silence me.”
For Williams, who gave a pretty impassioned speech himself at the Jan. 24 meeting — “Trust me, all of you, we’re going to get to the bottom of this and the voters are going to have their rights as voters” — this turnaround in public opinion is almost as satisfying as if he’d actually won the election by those 100 ballots.
“It reminds me of Richard Harris in Camelot, at the end, when everything he fought for is all gone, and he’s asking what all the struggle was for,” he told TheWrap. “And then that boy comes along, and Richard Harris realizes that he’s not alone, that his legacy will go on. That’s how it feels to me. We broke through. Honest to God, we broke through.”
“I lost,” said the man who once played Potsie, now sounding a bit like King Arthur, “but I didn’t lose.”
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